Anh Le merges family bonding time with community sharing every year by making over 100 bánh tét with her mother, sisters, and invited contributors (friends & family alike) for family and friends to welcome in the new year.
Every Lunar New Year, or “Tết“, which celebrates the arrival of spring, mother of two, Director of Kuman Center Livermore, and all around hard worker, Anh Le joins her mothers and sisters, and enlists friends, cousins, and younglings to participate in a home based factory to make over 100 bánh tét as gifts for family and friends. Though the new year is a time for rest and cessation of work, Anh and her band of renegades put in hundreds of hours of work creating these popular cakes, worth anywhere from $5-10 a piece, slaps on their family label, and distributes it along with wishes for a healthy, happy, and austere year.
It’s not uncommon in Vietnam for this popular treat to be created family factory style. In the states, however, we’re spoiled by Vietnamese grocery stores that stock up on these every Lunar New Year. While slapping over a $20 bill for a handful of these cakes will satisfy traditional requirements, there’s something we’ve lost here in America with this convenience – reunion and bonding time in the joint creation of something more significant than just a tasty meal-in-one. For many, this cake symbolizes the heart and soul of our country. This is, as many in the diaspora know, part of the pain of diasporic living – especially where traditions are not passed down from our elders.
Anh and her mother and sisters have managed to preserve this family tradition, however, despite the separation and years from our mother land. Their’s is a tradition I’ve spied enviously from a forkful of steaming bánh tét dipped in fish sauce. (OMG!) I make no pretense of offering a primer for how to make this or a recipe but you’ll find one here.
Family traditions – the healthy ones – are what families rely on to bond, to refresh or mend stale, broken, or difficult connections – to reassure a sense of stability even when things are chaotic. It’s the often sentimental moment in movies or novels when the main character has a crisis and there’s a moment when they are forced to endure a family tradition they often hated. It is in this moment – fishing at 5 a.m. with their uncle in a calm quiet river or preparing that extravagant family holiday meal – that they suddenly remember who they are and where they came from. Critics often poo poo such tear jerker scenes as “cliché.” You can almost predict what’s gonna happen next. The epiphany. The coming back to self.
But it’s real. We really do have these moments, these memories that we hold onto and cherish. People really do reminisce on those routines, traditions, those things that we did within our families that made us laugh, feel safe, inspired, loved, motivated, comfortable…
But what if you don’t have family traditions? What if the dysfunction in your family prevented anything healthy and ritualistic? Or what if the dysfunction was so damaging that any traditions you may have had are better erased than remembered. Let alone celebrated? What if you roamed from foster home to foster home, having no single family with which to build your traditions with?
Or, like my family, fled your country, found yourself on new shores, severed from the traditions you may have fostered from generations in your mother country, and so drenched in trauma that creating new or replicating old traditions feel daunting. This is when, even in the mist of chaos and turmoil, continuing or creation new traditions can be both important and grounding.
For me, this meant treating my cynical pre-teen to home-made (sometimes store bought) very cheesy lasagna and chilled sparkling apple cider every single time we had to move from being homeless to a new apartment every year (in search of affordable living). This was our “très magnifique” super fancy dinner on a budget and to this day we both will treat ourselves to a lasagna/sparkling apple cider feast when we’re down.
So besides family bonding time, what else are we missing with modern day convenience? Bánh tét also known as bánh chưng also signifies a legend that sits at the heart and soul of Vietnamese culture.
Legend holds that…once upon a time…a long time ago, in ancient times, when a prior mythical dynasty head (King!) was seeking for a way to honor our ancestors and represent our people, he called upon his many sons (of course!) to see which one was the most worthy to take over his rule of the land. So the many “princes” set out to seek treasures that were representative of their peoples. Apparently, these “princes” had varying degrees of economic stability and the “poorest” among them, Lang Lieu, could not afford jewels or treasures so he created Bánh Chưng using those items that he knew well that were symbolic of his everyday life: sticky rice, green beans, pork and banana leaves. The original cake was fashioned in the shape of a square to symbolize the earth (an ancient understanding) and the ingredients represent the staple crops of the Vietnamese people which has sustained them for centuries. The King loved this gift and crowned the young prince as the next King.
Notwithstanding my feelings that this legend is possibly grounded in patriarchy, Confucianism, an old Vietnamese nationalistic desire to be better than their colonizer, China, and a dynastic system that many scholars are skeptical of, the legend symbolizes the importance of peasant and agricultural life to the Vietnamese people. I’ll set aside my suspicion that this invention may have actually originated in the minds and hearts of a village or a matriarchy and that this truth may have somehow been pushed aside for nationalistic needs for further research at a future date (and blog). Such is the fate of many legends across many cultures though…
This tradition is just one of the things that defines Anh’s life. Over the years, Anh has always surprised me with her tenacity and generosity. Her focus and ability to engage in multiple massive projects rival my own. Dare I say, even surpasses me because she actually completes her projects.
She is a model example of how one person can accomplish so much by pooling in her community and building an effort around a singular mission. When her children were in elementary school, Anh served as a member of the Parent Teacher association. Seeing a need for consistency in exercise, she organized her children and local neighborhood children to walk to school everyday. Leading the charge, she organized and accompanied youth on their daily trek. She did this consistently for years!
In more recent years, she has expanded a home tutorial program for her children into a Kumon franchise! This lady pulls no punches! Are you kidding me? Now Anh and her children benefit from not only her expertise as a Kumon instructor, but also from studying and learning alongside other students that frequent Anh’s site in Livermore.
It makes me dizzy to name some of the amazing things I’ve experienced in Anh’s company but to name a few: (1) A silkworm project where she and her kids (and their class) raised silkworms, (2) a beautiful tapestry of folded cranes in the tradition of Sadako for her nephew who had been diagnosed with cancer, and (3) countless treats she always has at the ready for a weary family member.
I’m proud to call this amazing (crazy??) lady my cousin! Yes you can be like Anh too – from small ways (helping your children with their homework) to amazing expansive ways (making 100 personalized special gifts for friends and family every year).
While this may seem like a grand gesture and an unattainable endeavor – a closer look will show that its made up of many intricate components all important and all doable – many hands coming together, each entrusted with their own task, every task essential to the whole. This activity, this tradition, can be morphed and applied to any group endeavor. What you need are:
Oh and the hardest components – these may take time – especially if you are coming out of a tough spot, starting new, and trying to make new traditions with new or old family members:
Banh Chung – The Soul of Vietnamese New Year
Bánh Tét – Essential to Tết in the South of Vietnam
Lasagna & Sparkling Apple Cider
Mrs. Binh Van Nguyen demonstrates making bánh tét rice cakes. Photo: Mark Sindler
The tale of Banh Chung Banh Giay
Paper Cranes – Photo by Dev on Unsplash
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